Tig Notaro on Her Documentary Tig, Loving ‘the Darkness,’ and Why She Wants to Be a Mother

Photo: Earl Gibson III/Getty Images

If one documentary starring Tig Notaro this year wasn’t enough, the Netflix original Tig offers an intimate portrait of the comedian before and after her instantly famous 2012 performance at the Largo in Los Angeles, which began with her saying, “Good evening. Hello. I have cancer. How are you?”

The film comes just a few months after Showtime’s Knock Knock, It's Tig Notaro, which followed the comedian as she traveled to and performed in the the homes of fans, on farms, and at other folksy venues. Tig is a more serious look at Notaro’s personal life, one that was rattled beyond belief following a life-threatening infection, the sudden death of her mother, and a breast-cancer diagnosis. The film captures the year that came after her barrage of tragedies, during which she tries to start a family, falls in love, and tries to figure out how to follow up such an unrepeatable performance at her home venue.

We spoke with Notaro to find out what it was like to record, and then later watch, such a personal (and simultaneously heartbreaking and uplifting) journey. Tig premieres on Netflix on July 17. Her one-hour HBO special Tig Notaro: Boyish Girl Interrupted premieres on August 22.

There are a lot of emotional highs and lows in the film, both portrayed beautifully. How was it revisiting them in this format?
In a way, I was scared to see the film. Of course, I was hoping that it would be good, but then you just press play and kind of sit back with a cringed face, waiting for it to be bad or weird. Stephanie [Allynne, her fiancée] and I were sitting there watching it at the first screening and I turned to her and said, “I think this might actually be good.” And she said, “Yeah, it’s amazing.” It’s nothing against [her friend and the film's director] Kristina [Goolsby] or any of the filmmakers, because I trusted them to do a good job, and it’s not that I find myself fascinating, because believe me, I don’t. I just think that they had a lot of story lines to work with and they streamlined it really nicely. They hit both the humorous and emotional beats, and it feels inspiring, so when I saw it I was more like, “Good for you guys! Great job!” because it wasn’t my project. It’s my life, but it’s their project.

There are several moments in the film when we see you acknowledge and even laugh at some incredibly dark and personal ironies, like when you decide to take fertility hormones and realize you could potentially kill yourself by trying to create a life. Was it uncomfortable being reminded of those situations?
I mean, I’ve always had an appreciation for them. My family is very funny and can laugh about the dark stuff. I was just raised like that. It’s my natural sensibility. Even though I do like light and silliness, I also love the darkness. To me, that’s the funniest part of the film. Stephanie and I love it so much and we laugh so hard. It does get kind of an awkward response — people kind of laugh at it because they’re like, “Oh, gosh …” But it really was true. I really felt that bad, emotionally.

During the film you receive difficult news about your surrogate process. Have you been able to joke about that?

No, I don’t have any material about it. I’m still in the process of trying to figure things out. Not everything makes it to the stage. Maybe it will. But right now, I’m still right in the middle of trying to work on my personal life and build my family. Not that I can’t joke about it right in the middle of it, but it hasn’t reared its head yet.

Do you think your fans will be surprised by your strong desire — and the lengths you’re prepared to go to — to have a child?
I think so, yeah. I mean, even my stepfather, I’m sure he’s read articles and must know now that that was happening, but even when he was being interviewed for the documentary, when they said, “What kind of mother do you think Tig would make?” He said, “Oh, she doesn’t want to be a parent.” You know? So, people will be surprised.

What excites you most about becoming a mom?
I’ve always wanted to be a parent. As much as I love my career and doing stand-up and all the social elements in my life, it all kind of feels like, “Okay, okay, okay. I gotta go. I got a family to build.” That’s my real drive. I wanted to get my career to a place where I could just sort of go off and have a family, and that’s when I got really sick. So things have been stalled a bit, but now I think they’re back on track and headed in the right direction. I dated someone years ago who had a kid, and I was just shocked by how everything became unimportant to me except for taking care of him. It just feels good. It feels great to help guide little people who don’t know anything.

And, as you mention in the documentary, it’s all about those little pants.
Yeah, that’s our other favorite part. We just want to put little pants on somebody.

One especially relatable part of the film was watching you and Stephanie fall in love over text message. That’s modern romance in a nutshell.
Yeah, it’s really an interesting thing. I think we say in the film that neither of us were into texting, and then as soon as the two of us started texting it was like wildfire, we couldn’t stop. I was touring all the time and I really thought she had a team of writers behind her. She was so funny.

It was great to see Sarah Silverman, Kyle Dunnigan, and other comedians in the film helping you when you were sick. Was the comedy community your main source of comfort throughout?
I was really so carried by my friends and family through that time. When I had my double mastectomy, Sarah [Silverman] was there first at the hospital waiting at six in the morning, right there, literally at my side, with my aunt. After my surgery, I was wheeled into a room of probably 20 local comedians, everybody bringing me food. Megan Mullally came to my hospital and sang at my bedside literally every day I was in the hospital. It was one of those things where someone says, “I’m going to visit you everyday,” and you go, ‘Yeah, right.” But then you’re like, “Jesus, take a day off.” I mean, going to the hospital is an ordeal, and she came every single day. Also my friends who aren’t famous comedians, and my family, everybody helped. I always call myself the luckiest unlucky person in the world and I really feel that I am.

Another fascinating part of the film is seeing you work out a joke about your double mastectomy and evolve it before the Largo anniversary show. As you found the humor in that, is there anything about no longer having breasts that you actually enjoy?
Well, it was a hard thing to go through, initially, and just to have such a drastic change to my body. I remember sitting around with my friend Kyle right after, probably a month or so after the surgery, and we were just laughing until crying, just laughing, and I looked down at my chest in my kind of tight, fitted T-shirt, looking as flat as I was when I was eight years old. There’s certainly something androgynous about it, but more so I relate to the innocence of a flat chest and laughing really hard with my friend. I feel like a little kid. And I’m inching toward 50, so I’m not. I’m almost halfway to 100 — and I feel like a little kid.

Your first HBO special is coming out at the end of the summer. How is this different than the last hour you recorded?
I don’t know exactly what’s different, but I always try to allow myself to grow and do what I want to do, whether it’s a one-liner or a 15-minute story or a physical bit or confessional comedy, it’s all in there. Every bit of silliness and heartfelt storytelling and observational humor, every part of my style is in this new hour. It’s me combining everything I’ve ever done and allowing it to be whatever it wants to be, if that makes sense.